Advice from the pros

Local garden centers weigh in on the best ways to take care of your lawn and garden this fall.


As Islanders get ready to hunker down for the fall and winter, lawns and gardens are preparing to go dormant during the cold season — a good time to do some maintenance and prep work so that when spring rolls around, your grass and plants will be ready to thrive.

“This is really the best time of year to do things with your lawn,” Paul Mahoney, owner of Jardin Mahoney Garden Center, told The Times. “Whether it’s maintaining it, or if people are looking to put in a new lawn or overseed an existing lawn.”

Now until the end of October, Mahoney said, the opportunities to improve the quality of your lawn are extensive.

Before laying new seed, it’s important to prep your lawn by amending the existing soil with either a quality topsoil or compost blend. This helps the new seed get established, and provides plenty of nutrients to keep it going through the cold season and into the spring.

According to Mahoney, there are several different kinds of fertilizers that can be used to enhance your lawn, with some being more specifically oriented toward planting a lawn through new seeding, where others are for an existing lawn.

Mahoney stressed that any fertilizer someone chooses should be in compliance with the local regulations for fertilizer application.

Most importantly, this means limiting the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer that can spread through soil and groundwater and into sedentary water bodies.

One of the requirements on-Island, according to Mahoney, is that the nutrients must consist of 50 percent or greater slow-release nitrogen.

“That’s better for the lawns anyway than some of these fertilizers that dump a lot of nitrogen all at once, and it’s all gone in a short period of time,” Mahoney said.

Another important step to take this time of year is to lay some lime down on your lawn.

This will raise the pH of the soil conditions, allowing the grass to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from the fertilizer.

Before spreading fertilizer, Mahoney suggests raking out the lawn to remove any thatch or other dead plant material, and loosen the soil up a bit so the grass seed can have more direct contact with its growing medium.

“In order for the seed to germinate, it has to come in contact with the soil, so you want to have some soil available there. If it’s all thatch, the seed might not get in contact,” Mahoney said.

With the cooler weather finally arriving, Jeremiah Brown, lead foreman at Vineyard Gardens, said it’s the best time for lawn care, although the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

“We pretty much have a monthlong window to do a lot of this really important work to make sure lawns are healthy and have a good head start when the spring comes,” Brown said.

One practice Brown recommends this time of year (if you have the time and the tools) is to aerate the lawn.

By punching holes in the surface layer of the grass, air and nutrients are able to sink deeper into the lawn, and compaction from months of outdoor activities can be alleviated.

The folks at Vineyard Gardens use an aeration machine, which pulls little chunks of lawn out (called plugs), making for a healthier lawn that is more breathable.

Afterward, they run a dethatcher over the lawn, which breaks the excess material up so it can be reused by the grass.

“Then we rake off the rest of the debris, which could be weeds, crabgrass, and other stuff that gets pulled up from the dethatcher,” Brown said. “We remove that, then top-dress the grass with some good compost, using a composter — basically a glorified wheelbarrow with a conveyer belt that sprinkles soil all over the lawn as if it was a fertilizer spreader.”

If this process is followed and seed is laid, Brown said, lawns will immediately green up and look full and healthy when the spring thaw comes.

Brown suggests following a specific fertilizer regimen: he lays high-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring, which wakes the grass up. In the summer, he uses medium-nitrogen fertilizer, and in the fall, he limits the nitrogen and ramps up the amount of phosphorus and potassium.

These nutrients strengthen the root systems of the grass, and make them hearty for the winter. According to Brown, how much attention and care someone pays to their lawn will ultimately determine its health and quality.

“You need to observe your lawn and interact with it. Know what’s going on with it, know what to do when, and most importantly, let your landscaper know what you want,” Brown said.

If folks want a specific fertilizer or treatment, Brown said it’s essential to convey that to landscape crews. “We aren’t necessarily going to come to your house and observe your lawn and garden each day. The right thing will happen with your lawn and garden as long as you have the passion for it, and convey to the landscaper what you want,” Brown said.

Owner of Donaroma’s Nursery, Mike Donaroma said gardens take a minimal amount of work in the fall, but there are some beneficial aspects to taking the time. “It’s a good time to plant and divide perennials in preparation for late fall and winter, where you cut everything back and get rid of all the dead plants and stuff,” Donaroma said. Over the years, Donaroma has found that a light spread of mulch in perennial beds helps retain moisture through the cold and dry season, and insulates plants from the extreme cold. Organic mulches also break down to add organic matter to the soil and suppress weed growth, making garden maintenance easier.

Some folks use seaweed for perennials, but Donaroma has found that seaweed mulch retains too much moisture, and is prone to rot.

“It’s not as much that they can’t handle the cold, but they can’t handle sitting with wet feet. I just use a light bark mulch, cut the plants back, and if I am going to fertilize them, I might give them a really light shot very early in the fall,” Donaroma explained. “You don’t want to feed them too much and push growth into the winter.”

As for lawn care, Donaroma said, doing some extra work now will pay off in the long run. After aerating and dethatching the lawn, he suggests adding a small amount of balanced fertilizer, then overseeding as needed. He stressed that grass seed doesn’t need a lot of fertilizer in the fall because the frequent rains provide plenty of nitrogen.

“The advantage of overseeding in the early fall is once the seed germinates, it doesn’t have to compete so much with the weeds, because those weeds are going dormant now,” Donaroma explained. “The ryegrasses, the fescue grasses, the bluegrasses, they really like the cool nights — the weeds don’t.”

A few months later, once the seed germinates in late September and early October, Donaroma explained that the early seeding process tricks the plant into thinking it’s been in the ground for two growing seasons.

“It then starts to spread rhizomatously through the soil, so you actually get a two-year plant by starting in the fall,” he said.

The only other recommendation Donaroma made was to watch out for those pesky deer, which are more hungry and active during the fall. “They are eating absolutely everything — I hear they are eating 2-by-4s!” he laughed.

For more tips and advice on fall and winter gardening, find Abigail Higgins’ biweekly column “Garden Notes” on the back page of The MV Times’ Community section. Find more garden tips at